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White House Raises Hopes for Kinder, Gentler Immigrant Detention

Michelle Chen

Soon, undocumented immigrants may be eligible to enjoy an expense-paid hotel stay just before being jetted off to their country of origin, never to see their families again, courtesy of the federal government. Not quite the overhaul human rights activists have been seeking, but at this point, they can take heart in any glimmer of light that Washington might shed on the shadowy realm of immigrant detention.

The latest reform proposals for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention have received cautious praise from rights groups. The report, authored by out-going Obama appointee Dora Schriro (who abruptly pulled out of Washington to run corrections in New York). leaves Homeland Security head Janet Napolitano with a slew of ideas for making the detention regime less miserable, and tens of thousands of immigrants locked up for unclear reasons that the government, under current policy, need never explain.

The 35-page report offers some positive-sounding terminology and minimal details:

ICE should develop a new set of standards, assessments, and classification tools to inform care, custody restrictions, privileges, programs, and delivery of services consistent with risk level and medical care needs of the population. ICE should expand access to legal materials and counsel, visitation, and religious practice. ICE should also develop unique provisions for serving special populations such as women, families, and asylum seekers.

In the wake of harrowing tales about detainees dying in custody the recommendations include setting up a "well-managed medical care system, with comprehensive initial assessments to inform housing assignments and ongoing care management."

Other potential reforms include offering detainees more recreational activities, "enhancing the family visitation meeting rooms," accommodating detainees' religious beliefs and practices, and facilitating contact with attorneys. Longer-range improvements might include comprehensive mental health treatment to minimize trauma and suicidal tendencies. Some modicum of personal privacy protection for women might be beneficial, and windows in the cells would be nice, too.

The New York Times reports that ICE has explored housing non-threatening immigrants in converted hotel and nursing-home spaces rather than behind bars.

But from these incremental reform ideas emerges a curious picture of a bizarre alternate universe, lacking accountability or even logic. The administration might improve the ambiance with a fresh coat of paint, spacious rec rooms and textbooks for school children. Nonetheless, the central, defining reality of detention remains the banishment of hundreds of thousands for violating a system of rules that is itself guilty of systematically violating rights.

Perhaps that's why the report is more useful for what it reveals about the current state of detention. While the majority of detainees come through crackdowns on criminal immigrants and federal-local partnership under the 287(g) program, the report acknowledges that “The majority of the population is characterized as low custody, or having a low propensity for violence.” Of the initial book-ins under the aptly named Criminal Alien Program, 57 percent were deemed “non-criminal” in fiscal year 2009, up from 53 percent the year before. At the start of September, some two-thirds of the detainee population was subject to mandatory detention—a practice that advocacy groups have denounced as an assault on basic due process rights.

ACLU Legislative Counsel Joanne Lin commented Tuesday on the twisted logic undergirding the system:

The new DHS detention initiatives fail to examine the pipeline that channels hundreds of thousands of people into ICE detention in the first place. … In order to truly reform and improve its immigration detention system, DHS must reform the ICE enforcement programs that are herding masses of people into ICE detention every day.

ICE's promised reforms are a partial answer to issues raised by activists and officials over the years. But the White House still has yet to answer to one key constituency: the families devastated every day by mass incarceration, who pose just one simple question: why?

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Michelle Chen works and plays in New York City. Besides freelance reporting, her various occupations have included ethnographic research in Shanghai and coat-checking at a West Village jazz club. Her writing has also appeared in In These Times, South China Morning Post, Women's International Perspective, and her old zine, cain.

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